DAY 706 - DEVIL’S DESERT
Day 706 - Tolar Grande, Argentina - 15320 km
I was invited for a mini road trip by people I’d met in a hostel. They are travelling individually, but rented a car together to explore the puna (high plains) in the north of Argentina. The area I had cycled through has so much to see, but is incredible wide spread and remote. When they asked I immediately said yes.
We’re heading to Tolar Grande, a small mining settlement. The road leads through a variety of salt lakes and colourful desert. Martin, from France drives the small rental car. Behind me are Justine, also from France and Maurin from Switzerland. Martin sailed from Europe to Ushaiua, my cycling destination at the south tip of Argentina, by sail boat with a crew of five. It took them 6 months to reach the end of the continent. From here he hitchhiked north. The others are also backpacking parts of South America. It’s a happy bunch, they’re all in their early 20s, Maurin just turned 20. Young, energetic and impulsive, but with the responsibility of an adult.
The destinations are wide sprea and roads unpaved. It would have been better to have a 4-wheel drive, but that was above their budget. Nobody lives here, except from some hamlets where mining workers live isolated. In between are desolate, windswept plains. Sand storms suddenly appear from behind the volcanoes and ridges. Martin drives fast, but has the car well under control. Sometimes hitting the brakes for a pothole. The soft sand spirals through the vents and windows, our noses filled with dust. The washboards roads make the car rattle. The kind of rattle that unscrew bolts. My tripod in the trunk loses a leg by the continuous shake. We pass a sign Desierto del Diablo (Devil’s Desert), a brown sand storm desert, haunting and beautiful.
Our goal for the day is Cono De Arita, a strange, almost perfectly symmetric hill at the far edge of Salar de Arizaro. It’s Argentina's largest salt flat covering 1600km2. After passing the sleepy town of Tolar Grande, where we’re planning to spend the night, we still have to cross the entire lake. It’s not as crystal clear as the one in Bolivia I crossed a few weeks ago, but more like a plowed potato field covered with a thin layer of snow. The drive takes the entire day. When we reach the Cono De Arita at the end of the afternoon we decide to walk up from the road, not having much of an idea how far or high the hill is. Martin reads his map and mentions it’s 2,5 km to the hill… but Justine en Maurien are already on their way. I walk a wide circle to be able to photograph the rest climbing the hill in front of the setting sun. It’s a tough walk on the rough and hardened texture. You easily get your foot stuck in between. It takes an hour before the first reaches the foot of the hill. Justine gives up halfway and starts to walk back. Another hour later Martin and Maurien are at the summit. I get there, just to late to see to see the sunset. We return in the dark using our smartphones to light our way. In our best attempt to find back the car back we arrive on the road, 800m off from where we had parked. There’s simply no reference.
It’s 10pm when we arrive at a guest house in Tolar Grande. No rooms are available. We try another one without luck. Then the refugio, which appears to be occupied by a school group, so it turns out we’re in the middle of nowhere without a place to sleep and it’s near 11pm. Over dinner in the only restaurant we discuss the options. We have no tents or camping gear with us. Sleep in the little Chevy? That would be very cold and uncomfortable. The only option seems to be driving the back for 5 hours through the night. It doesn’t sound like smart idea. I suggest to buy a few bottles of cola and start driving. We will switch driving seat every hour.
It’s midnight when we hit the road, with a thin moon in the sky. I’m behind the wheel. The last time I drove a car was almost two years ago in San Francisco. I enjoy the nightly ride with music on my headphones. It doesn’t take long before everyone is asleep. The car smells like a dorm room and Coca Cola. The sand clouds the view of the headlights. My knee hurts from the subtle gaspedal. I’m driving slow, but because we don’t make sightseeing stops, we make fast progress. After two hours we reach a crossroads and I wake everyone up to propose an idea. There’s basically two options: continue driving to the hostel where we left in the morning. We would arrive around 4am, so we’ll have to sleep in the car for roughly 3 cold hours, because the hostel won’t be open. The second option is we head to Olacapato, a small mining town I had spend the night two days ago, which is only 20 minutes from where we are. From what I remember we could reach the rooms from the patio which are not locked. The dogs might start barking, but they were scared of me when I tried to pet them. We go for the last option.
Olacapato is even more run down than Tolar Grande. A derelict mining settlement with a railway station that connects the mines with the town. A few blocks of mud brick ruins and sandy streets. Everything is brown and covered in dust. In the middle is a loud generator house that provides the town with power. Slowly we drive into town to not disturb anyone. It’s 3am and everyone seems asleep. Before we arrive I play the scene in my head. We will drive on the patio and the dogs will start barking. The owners will come out, I will apologise for the late hour and explain the situation. I rehearse the Spanish sentences. Nothing like it happens. No dogs, no owners, it remains quiet on the patio. Five pick up trucks are parked in front of the rooms. Probably from mine workers that stay here. I knock on the door of the restaurant and wait, because I’d rather ask if we could sleep here than simply squatting a room, but no replies. After looking around we enter a space where the light is on. There are 4 doors with numbers. It smells of sleeping people. Martin carefully opens one of the doors and peaks his head in side. Full. We try the other rooms. Lots of snorring. Back outside I try the room I slept the other day. With my head torch I go over the beds. Someone blocks his eyes from the light. I feel very inappropriate. All the beds are occupied with sleeping people. Then the last room, 5 empty bunk beds… perfect! We tiptoe back to the car, take our bags out and tuck ourselves in. In the morning the staff is surprised to meet us when sit down in the restaurant for breakfast, but they recognise me. We explain our nightly escapade and it all ends with a laugh.